A more unlikely multi-media success than the jade-robed Buddhist monk who fought crime under the nom de guerre of The Green Lama would be hard to imagine.
Conceived in 1939 at the behest of the editors of Munsey Publications to compete with the juggernaut that The Shadow had become in print, on radio and in film, The Green Lama was the creation of writer Kendell Foster Crossen, who was asked to think up a hero who could lure mystery-minded readers away from The Shadow’s loyal legion of followers.
Inspired by a Columbia University student named Theos Casimir Barnard, who had journeyed to far-off Tibet to plumb the occult mysteries of Lamaism, Crossen concocted millionaire Jethro Dumont, who did the same.
“I was trying to pick a name somewhat like in sound to Lamont Cranston,” Crossen candidly admitted. “You know what I mean, Lamont-Dumont. It was as close as I dared get to Lamont Cranston. A book had just been published about an American who had gone to Tibet and studied and had become a lama, the only white person who ever had at that time. The result was the Green Lama, which the company liked.”
Returning to the States, Dumont assumed an alternative identity of the Buddhist cleric, the Reverend Dr. Pali, then began gathering about him a band of civic-minded citizens to join him in his Buddhistic battle against suffering in all forms—particularly those caused by criminals. And aiding him from the shadows, the mysterious Magga, a woman of many faces who had taken an interest in guiding The Green Lama’s campaign against malefactors.
At first Crossen called his creation The Gray Lama. But the powers at Munsey vetoed that drab hue on the grounds that it was too dull to catch the eyes of prospective buyers of his new home, Double Detective magazine. So The Gray Lama became The Green Lama. This, despite the fact that Buddhist monks are invariably robed in either maroon or saffron vestments!
It was an outlandish concept. While The Shadow possessed the power to cloud men’s minds after his time in the East, The Green Lama relied on other, even weirder, powers—including the ability to become radioactive and electrically shock opponents into submission! He carried a traditional scarf, which he employed to bind and befuddle opponents and possessed a knowledge of vulnerable nerve centers which he put to good use in hand-and-hand combat. Being a practicing Buddhist, it would not do to pack a pair of .45 automatics a la The Shadow!
Writing as Richard Foster, Crossen produced The Case of the Crimson Hand, which was published in the April, 1940 Double Detective under the equally colorful title, The Green Lama. That first installment raised the magazine’s circulation several notches. Amazingly, the Lama was a hit. Thirteen additional stories followed over the next four years, with provocative titles like The Case of the Hollywood Ghost and Babies for Sale. Assistants ranging from ordinary Manhattanites to a professional magician came and went with every adventure, which often involved emerging super-criminals and Fifth Column menaces.
By the time Double Detective had run its course in 1943, Crossen—who had wisely held onto all rights to his character—moved him over to the exploding comic book industry, where the Lama was reinvented as an alternative to Superman and Captain Marvel, then selling millions copies every month.
“I was the originator, the writer and the publisher of all the comic magazine stories that were published,” Crossen asserted. “Spark Publications was the publishing name, but that was legally listed as Ken Crossen d/b/a Spark Publications.”
In the version of the character which ran in Prize Comics, Crossen depicted an interpretation of his hero who possessed otherworldly supernatural powers far beyond those of The Green Lama simultaneously appearing in Double Detective.
The Lama proved so popular in comics that Crossen launched him in his own magazine under the Spark imprint. After chanting the Buddhist prayer “Om Mani Padme Hum!” (Hail, the Jewel in the Lotus!) Jethro Dumont was transformed, in the style of Captain Marvel, into the Man of Strength—a superstrong, caped flying version of his pulp incarnation. Crossen lured artist Mac Raboy away from drawing Captain Marvel, Jr. for the project. As often as not, the Lama battled Nazis and similar wartime foes.
Spark Publications lasted only two years, but again The Green Lama refused to die. In 1949, Crossen sold him to CBS as a radio hero—again to compete with The Shadow, who was still going strong. Paul Frees (Boris Badenov of TV’s Rocky and Bullwinkle Show) played Jethro and his alter ego. This version relied more on the pulp stories than the super-lama of comic books, but the episodes, among them The Gumbo Man and Tapestry in Purple, were not adaptations. Jethro’s manservant Tsarong, was changed to Tulku, to avoid evoking Hollywood star Dorothy Lamour and her famous sarongs, which were popular at the time. Crossen co-scripted many episodes, but the series last only one summer.
Just as that version was fading from the airwaves, CBS considered adapting the character yet again for the emerging television market. But those daring plans fell through. Finally, The Green Lama had met a medium he could not conquer….
It had been a wild and amazing ten-year ride for the most improbable crime-buster of all time. While his originator has since gone on to Nirvana, and rights to The Green Lama are mistakenly assumed to be up for grabs, a new generation of pulp writers have revived the reverend Dr. Pali, who lives on in the 21th century, deathless and seemingly unvanquishable, a man of faith turned improbable superhero.
“The real success of the Lama was because of the mysticism,” Ken Crossen recalled. “We received a tremendous amount of mail about the Lama. People would come into the offices of the publishing company asking to see him. If he wasn’t there, they’d want to talk with Richard Foster.”
His first case and its sequel, The Case of the Croesus of Murder, are presented in one set, voiced by the talented Michael McConnohie. Thus, the hero of a dozen different incarnations has found a new world to conquer! You’ll never encounter another hero anything like him. Om Mani Padme Hum! The Green Lama knows!